By Michael J. West | Published August 2019
The lack of horns in pianist Matt Mitchell’s five-piece ensemble brings with it a certain attenuation—or at least that perception. It does not, however, lack intensity. The band cooks, and what’s more, it cooks on some tangled, challenging recipes. But the softer tone colors—piano, bass, vibes, guitar, drums—don’t let the listener off easy.
The first clue is the group’s convoluted rhythmic forms. Drummer Kate Gentile lays out a polyrhythmic line on “Stretch Goal” that’s impossible to follow right out of the gate; that Mitchell, bassist Kim Cass and guitarist Miles Okazaki essentially hum along does not help. Inscrutable rhythms recur on “Taut Pry” and “Be Irreparable,” when Okazaki, Mitchell and vibraphonist Patricia Brennan, respectively, play heads that actively oppose the pulses. If that’s not warning enough, the many layers of counterpoint on “Phasic Haze Ramps,” the album’s 16-minute centerpiece, drive the point home. It begins with a collective improvisation, spontaneous patterns and rhythmic motifs lobbed between Mitchell and Brennan on one hand, Cass and Gentile on the other, with Okazaki drifting in between. Two minutes in, their lines converge before dissolving into improv again.
Studded with tidbits for the focused ear, Phalanx Ambassadors isn’t always worth the assay; “Stretch Goal,” for one, is more work than reward. But moments like the funky breakdown on “Zoom Romp” or faint woodwind-like backgrounds from Brennan and Okazaki on “Mind Aortal Cicatrix” repay the effort. There are some kinks to work out, but Mitchell is on to something.
Phalanx Ambassadors: Stretch Goal; Taut Pry; Zoom Romp; Phasic Haze Ramps; SSGG; Be Irreparable; Mind Aortal Cicatrix. (45:36)
Personnel: Matt Mitchell, piano, synthesizer; Kim Cass, bass; Kate Gentile, drums, percussion; Patricia Brennan, vibraphone, marimba; Miles Okazaki, guitar.